It starts with the sound of corrosion — a momentary wave of static out of which grows a beat, a tense melody dotted with electronic burps, a mounting orchestral wash and, lastly, the sort of casual, unfinished vocal confession that could only belong to Jeff Tweedy.
Thus begins Art of Almost, the lead track to Wilco's splendid new album, The Whole Love. If one were prone to interpretation, you might view the corrosive prelude as a sort of burning away from the past and the rapid re-assembly of found pop parts as a gateway to something new. Tweedy probably never envisioned anything so obvious or pretentious for The Whole Love. But there is no doubting the mood shift from 2009's Wilco (The Album) to now. The former was full of summery diversion. The Whole Love is all autumnal beauty — bleak though it sometimes becomes.
Longtime fans will still find familiarity, here. Wilco continues to be masterful at crafting all manner of pop melodies. Some are ornate, others disarmingly simple.
For Dawned on Me, Tweedy surrounds a chorus that will lodge itself in your brain after a single listen with Radiohead-like keyboard/bass fragments while drummer Glenn Kotche, a University of Kentucky grad, adds a mix of playful and propulsive grooves. More sumptuous corrosion then ensues from Wilco's secret weapon: guitarist Nels Cline. There is a brief but absolutely brilliant passage in the song where Cline's guitar squall is countered by Tweedy whistling the chorus. Seldom have Wilco's many moods met, blended and moved on with such efficiency.
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From another land altogether comes Capitol City, a light, wide-eyed shuffle that almost seems like a vehicle for some soft-shoe footwork. The childlike overtones of the song bring out a bright innocence in Tweedy's singing. The tune is a real trip, though. It musically borrows from the kinds of wheezy keyboard colors Garth Hudson might have created decades ago with The Band. But Tweedy winds up dashing any sort of picture-postcard sentimentalism by augmenting (and defusing) the traditional "wish you were here" refrain with the more sobering brush off of "you wouldn't like it here."
The Whole Love saves its jaw-dropper for last, however. Closing the album is the 12-minute One Sunday Morning, a saga of loss and broken faith set to a wistful, light-as-air melody that rides along with the lyrics like a passenger. It is part dirge and part affirmation, even if the quiet doom of Tweedy's hushed singing seems to initially suggest more of the former.
Such is the way the moods mesh, sparkle and implode on The Whole Love, an album dominated by a band voice that remains — above all the visions here of darkness and light — as vividly luminous as it is beautifully restless.